Just Research? (Un)Seeing Politics in a Complex World

The third post of The Disorder of Things blog symposium on Sophie Harman’s Seeing Politics is by Associate Professor and Director of the African Centre for Migration & Society (at the University of the Witwatersrand) Jo Vearey.


Sophie Harman has produced an excellent, accessible text within which she shares her reflections on the opportunities and tensions associated with a research process that draws on feminist research praxis, engages with efforts to democratise research, and aims to work with participants to co-produce knowledge. In Seeing Politics, Sophie presents a comprehensive review of the potential of film as a feminist method, and reflects on her work with 80 women in Tanzania that culminated in the co-production of a narrative feature film that shares their stories of living with HIV. The resultant film – Pili – has been shown at international film festivals and received awards and, as Sophie highlights, is the first time that a co-produced narrative film has been applied as a feminist research method in the field of International Relations (IR).

Seeing Politics is a book about method and about a justice-driven approach that attempts to ‘make visible the invisible’ lived experiences of women living with HIV in Tanzania, notably their navigation of formal and informal everyday politics and how this intersects with their health and wellbeing, and with gendered experiences of discrimination and abuse. But it is also about a lot more.

Knowledge Politics

Seeing Politics forces us to see a different form of politics: the politics of knowledge. Whilst this is, obviously, implicit throughout the book, we should more explicitly reflect on how ‘the visual’ as a research method and research output ‘makes visible’ the discomforts of knowledge politics, namely: who is telling whose story and for what purpose? When we claim to ‘make visible the invisible’, who are we positioning as invisible and what does it mean to do so? In what context? Is it for us (the researcher) to determine who needs to be made visible? For whose benefit? What are the implications of making people and places visible? Such questions force us to engage in our own research praxis and confront uncomfortable questions about the politics of knowledge, and the role of scholarship and the academy when engaging in justice-driven research.  These are by no means new or novel questions and an extensive body of literature exists that I won’t in any way attempt to summarise here. These long established calls for democratisingdecolonising and humanising research are attracting a new generation of indigenous researchers from multiple disciplinary perspectives who are productively engaging with these tensions, re-engaging with decolonial approaches to research methods and praxis and challenging the status quo in international partnerships.

Sophie highlights that the methodology outlined in Seeing Politics is about a commitment to ensuring what Sophie and her colleague William Brown have previously framed as ‘African agency’, an approach to research that aims “to take African politics, actions, preferences, strategies and purposes seriously to get beyond the tired tropes of an Africa that is victimised, chaotic, violent and poor” (Brown and Harman 2013, 1-2). This is a welcome imperative but, as a framing proposed by two white, British academics based in the UK, what does this – as an academic project in its own right – mean for the idea of ‘African agency’?  At its core, I would argue that Seeing Politics is in fact about precisely these tensions and contradictions that many of us experience in our research praxis. The book itself becomes a helpful tool for recognising and responding to the discomfort we feel of being a researcher and the way we feel about our own positions and complicity in the extractive nature of research. I see how I can use the book in my teaching as a way to generate exactly this form of reflection.

(Un)Seeing Politics

Seeing Politics makes the case for co-producing a narrative feature film as a way to address the inherently extractive nature of research. This method, Sophie argues, can challenge the ways in which a researcher speaks for, homogenises, and robs those whose stories are being extracted of agency and knowledge. Sophie outlines how such a process can address the problematic ways in which ‘value’ tends to be added to existing knowledge through the academic process. Such an approach reifies the researcher as the producer of knowledge, assuming that only the researcher can hold and communicate knowledge. However, whether a co-produced narrative feature film such as Pili can successfully address these interlinked challenges remains unclear. Firstly, what is knowledge? The language of co-production suggests that knowledge is produced when it can be argued that the existing knowers – in this case the women in the film and those whose stories form the script – already hold the knowledge. Is it that co-production in film is about collaborating to curate knowledge and find ways to collectively share this knowledge with others? Critically, the central thesis of Seeing Politics assumes that viewers want to see ‘African agency’, and that they want to take the time and effort needed to read and interpret a visual text in a way that forces us to see these ‘politics, actions, preferences, strategies and purposes seriously’. It also assumes that we will all read this in the way intended. What does it mean for those who wish to unsee – or remain blind to – these politics and realities?

The co-production of a narrative feature film is, as Sophie clearly outlines, one fraught with power imbalances, notably in terms of the process of producing the film itself. This was acknowledged early on in the project but decisions were made to proceed with the methodology. This included the realisation that the available budget meant that a UK crew would need to be hired, and that all post-production work would take place in the UK –concerns that are, it could be argued, counter to the aim of a co-produced project that was designed to address such challenges. The decision not to premier the film on the African continent in favour of a more prestigious film festival that would bring professional credibility to the producer is an example of what I would see as an irreconcilable difference in intention and process. These are uncomfortable realities, as are those associated with talking about money and who holds the purse strings in a project like this, and Sophie acknowledges these and the tensions that resulted. Sophie turns this challenge into an opportunity, exploring these power relations as an opportunity to interrogate transnational feminism and gatekeeping within research process, and to explore what this means for knowledge production. Whilst this is a welcomed lens on process, we need to engage further with the tensions inherent in international partnerships, and question what a truly co-produced project is. What does it mean if someone already has the money, the power and the idea? Chisomo Kalinga and Loren Landau are examples of researchers who are, from their differing positions, calling out the need for more ethical and equitable international research partnerships. My intention here is not to berate the process of producing Pili. Rather, I call on all researchers in international partnerships to find platforms to honestly reflect on the tensions inherent in such relationships as Sophie has done. Further layers of ethical concerns require thinking through here: who can speak out? What is the fallout? How do we develop a constructive debate when the funds are held by foreign partners?

Whilst a co-produced narrative feature film is not the same as participatory visual methods – such as participatory video or creative and arts-based participatory research projects – many tensions and concerns overlap in terms of if and how film is a feminist method. These critiques focus on the need to carefully question the power of the visual as a feminist methodology. Shannon Walsh (2016) critiques the politics of (participatory) video in her insightful paper within which she warns of ‘the dangerous romance of liberalism’. In the same special issue Sara Kindon draws attention to the inherent power imbalances in the use of (participatory) and the need to more carefully explore if film is in fact a feminist practice of lookingElsa Oliveira critiques visual research praxis, highlighting “Participatory visual research approaches are time consuming and intense endeavours for all involved – participants and the research team alike. Asking people to engage with their lived experiences in ways that many of us might find invasive if the roles were reversed begs us, as researchers, to also consider the level of appropriateness of such methods.” Sophie clearly articulates the toll that the film making process had on her own wellbeing. These involved methodologies require their own built in support mechanisms. Key here is that, as Sophie highlights, feminist projects are never completed and they are deeply personal. What does this mean? Should we do these projects?

Just Research?[1]

Much in Seeing Politics resonates. I’ve not made a film – and after Sophie’s honest reflections around whether she would do so again – I don’t think I would ever try to. But the tensions Sophie so clearly and carefully articulates around attempts at co-production within a justice-driven research process that aims to respectfully share the lived experiences of a too-often marginalised group of women are familiar. This includes work with the MoVE:methods:visual:explore project at the African Centre for Migration & Society (ACMS) at Wits University (Johannesburg). Elsa Oliveira and I established MoVE in 2010 as a response to our collective frustrations about the methods and ethics associated with research aiming to document the lived experiences of diverse migrant groups in South Africa. We’ve written about this, and reflected on our own positions as women, as migrants, as researchers.

As a white British woman who has studied, lived and worked in South Africa for the past 15 years, I try to embed a reflexive praxis to engage with how my identity and research practice influence my own attempts at engaged scholarship in the development of improved responses to migration and health in Southern Africa; it’s a confronting process. I’ve made mistakes that have been hard to understand and address, and I’m often frustrated by the limits of research praxis and the methodologically and ethically unjust processes that persist. As a result, I’m constantly learning how not to do research.  I’m guided – and, sometimes misguided – by colleagues, students, government officials, civil society, funders and international partners.

With a background in public health, my research practice is implicitly driven by a social justice agenda that aims to contribute to efforts to improve health for all. But what does this mean in practice? How do researchers involved in global public health such as Sophie and I – British women who embody white privilege and – constructively interrogate our research practice and critically reflect on our responsibilities to serve a justice agenda? How do we do this without placing our fragile white selves at the centre? This isn’t about us: it’s about recognising that we need to do things differently. We must move away from ways of just doing research, to ways of ensuring justice within research – including better engaging and guiding who benefits from our research. What should we be doing to helpfully contribute to the broader social justice goals of global public health? These questions are mirrored throughout Seeing Politics.

I welcome the opportunity to engage with Sophie’s excellent book. And I recommend it to others without hesitation. But I sit with a discomfort: what do the women in the film and those on whom Pili is based really think about the process? Have they seen the book? Do they know about the book? How can we shift the gaze and allow participants – in this case the co-producers of Pili – to turn the cameras onto the producers and consumers of Pili? What could this offer as a form of evaluation and dialogue between those involved in the co-production and those consuming the film? This may offer an opportunity to address some of the tensions that Sophie outlines in navigating who speaks for the film and how this can undermine the imperative of coproduction.

 Film: a feminist way of seeing?

As someone who identifies as a public health researcher – an identity that values interdisciplinarity and action over a disciplinary approach to scholarship – I depend on the work of my colleagues based in the disciplines. Without it, the field of public health would stagnate: the disciplines bring insights into ways of knowing into our research praxis. In return, public health research presents opportunities to engage with and learn from approaches to  participatory action research (PAR), and attempts to deliver research projects with impact that are tied to establishing co-production and collaborative engagement with key stakeholders prior to the inception of a research project. It is exactly these insights – notably of what doesn’t work – that are afforded through the more applied, non-discipline of public health, that can be of use to our colleagues in the disciplines who are working towards producing more impactful, just research. Seeing Politics highlights the frustrations of ‘what counts’ as scholarship and our role as academics within an increasingly neoliberal academy. Whilst I agree with Sophie that there is a need to shift what counts in research, we also have to be careful about the push from funders and our employers alike to make all research ‘impactful’.  Opportunities for ‘Processing the Process[2]’ of these involved research methods are key and should be seen as academic outputs in their own right; this is something that Seeing Politics achieves and Sophie must be especially congratulated on. I’ve not (yet) viewed Pili but have found Sophie’s book enlightening and absorbing which, in my mind, furthers the importance of visual method as process, not only as output. As Sara Kindon highlights:

even [film’s] ability to enable a feminist practice of looking, must be tempered by greater critical engagement with the complexities of power within which the technology and its conventions are imbricated. By acknowledging how dominant modes of participatory video may be complicit with hegemonic modes of cultural production, we can begin to open up alternative engagements with the technology. Perhaps then a feminist practice of looking may be possible after all.


[1] https://www.mahpsa.org/the-sex-worker-zine-project-book/ p90-91

[2] https://www.mahpsa.org/know-my-story-2017/ p94-103

[This post was sourced and adapted from The Disorder of Things blog postJust Research? (Un)Seeing Politics in a Complex Worldon 12 September 2019.]

About Jo Vearey

Jo Vearey is an Associate Professor with the African Centre for Migration & Society, University of the Witwatersrand. She holds an Honorary Fellowship with the School of Social and Political Science at the University of Edinburgh, and a Senior Fellowship at the Centre for Peace, Development and Democracy at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. In 2015, Jo was awarded a Humanities and Social Science Wellcome Trust Investigator Award. Jo holds a MSc in the Control of Infectious Diseases (LSHTM, 2003), a PhD in Public Health (Wits, 2010), and has been rated by the National Research Foundation as a Young Researcher. In 2014 and 2015, Jo received a Friedel Sellschop Award from the University of the Witwatersrand for outstanding young researchers. She was a Marie Curie Research Fellow in 2013, at the UNESCO Chair on Social and Spatial Inclusion of Migrants, University of Venice (SSIM-IUAV), Venice, Italy.

With a commitment to social justice and the development of pro-poor policy responses, Jo’s research explores international, regional, national and local responses to migration, health, and urban vulnerabilities. Her research interests focus on urban health, public health, migration and health, the social determinants of health, HIV, informal settlements and sex work. Jo is particularly interested in knowledge production, dissemination and utilisation including the use of visual and arts-based methodologies.

Jo has a range of international collaborations, including an ESRC-NRF funded project with the University of Edinburgh, a WOTRO funded project with the VU University, Amsterdam on migration and sex work, and partnerships with the University of Massachusetts Boston and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine‘s Faculty of Public Health and Policy and Gender, Violence and Health Unit.

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